The drums begin in the late night, or the early morning. The beat throbs in the cool night air, a hotness of feeling that contrasts with one of the rare moments that shade is not a precious commodity. Who are these morning dancers? I have never seen, tugged between sleep and curiosity I often lapse into a semi-dream state where I find myself in strange rhythmic worlds, places in which the drumming never stops. By 5 the drumming still has not ceased, if anything it’s matured into a stable alternating halting, advancing style.
Dance in the African context is a mixture of narrative, theater, song, and participation. Similar to other oral cultures, even perhaps the Homeric tradition, many songs have specific call and response during specified moments of the song. These common songs have an amazing ability to bring people together. I was recently at a camp where there were numerous young adult men from all over togo, individuals from 30-40 disparate villages. Yet, with the shared culture of the south, even different ethnicities are familiar with certain common songs. When we began to sing and dance one, it was a sudden reminder of why I love Africa. Could I ever go into a room in the states, begin to belt out the beatles and suddenly everyone would jump out of their chairs, begin to sing and dance and rip out the plastic potted plants to use as impromptu drumsticks upon their cubicles. There was such shared humanity in those moments. To have a culture where accapela dance and song, used as culture transmission, but also reflective of a cultural soul, existing, reminded me of the predominating human experience of shared social bonds around campfires, villages, with simple instruments as accompaniment, and a shared cultural experience that by its nature invites others to engage and subsume their selves to the dance. The abandonment to which we sang, the depth to which the rhythm of the words and the pulse of the drumming simultaneously captured our bodies and used them as the physical, instrumental expression of the ineffable nature of the experience; gave visual life to an aural experience. Unlike dancing in the states which is so often tied into the sexual experience (not necessarily deplorable in and of itself), or that of other cultures, most dance in Togo has a tangible and personal meaning, but there are dances that show ones virility or readiness for conception. There are dances to call the rain, dances that communicate histories, dances that are educational theater on how to live one’s life, and in the act of dancing and singing one gives honor to the ancestors, respect to a memory that lives on like a heart-beat, and gives an identity.
It’s impossible to truly describe the experience of dancing at night, wood smoke swirling up to the stars, and djembes pounding a rhythm, for those moments, everyone escapes, and geography, place, names, everything fades into the music. I would call it an escape, but that suggests that fear drives the flight into the dancing ceremony. It’s more of a flow from one state of being to a more tightly focused one.
Cool nights driving a different kind of heat, loss of self, transformed into rhythm. The dust dreams of ancestors made manifest with future’s bodies. Tradition is lived, stamped onto the ground with arms thrown in ecstasy, cried out in language that itself pulses. Music doesn’t just intoxicate but is ensouled and ensouling. It reaches past blood and brain, and traces a lineage born from the first few moments of our species’ genesis.